America Squared

Posted Jan. 06, 2010, at 4:57 p.m.

Demographers are assuring Maine and New Hampshire that they will not lose one of their congressional districts as a result of the 2010 census. But come 2020, if current population trends hold, the states may not be as lucky.

Regardless of what this year’s census reveals about Maine’s population, the nation will undergo its painful and highly politicized redistricting this year. In that process, the opportunity exists to ameliorate the highly partisan nature of Congress, a nature that most Americans despise and blame for in-action on key issues. The potential fix lies in the shape of congressional districts.

According to a recent piece in the Boston Globe’s “Ideas” publication, gerrymandering — the practice of drawing legislative districts to favor one party over another — may be partly responsible for the sharp partisan divide in Washington.

The article cites Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District, which writer Joe Keohane describes as “consisting of two separate areas on Missouri’s eastern border connected by a narrow land bridge, with the southeastern portion practically encircling the Missouri 1st.” The “contorted configuration,” the writer argues, allows — if not creates — ideologically polar representatives.

Democrats and Republicans are equally culpable in the gerrymandering process, creating districts that pack enough of their constituencies into a region to assure election and re-election. A district in Alabama “looks like the Challenger explosion,” Mr. Keohane writes. One in Massachusetts looks like a sea monster, one in Texas like “a griffon that’s been run over by a lawn mower.” You get the idea.

“You wonder what things would be like if [a] representative were forced to consider the views of a range of left-leaning and right-leaning constituents,” Mr. Keohane writes, “if every time [the representative] ran for re-election, he had to sweat a little more to find a reasonable middle round. To be specific, it is hard not to imagine what things would be like if [districts] were more of a square.”

One fix that has been proposed is to require each district to have four right-angle corners. That might not work in Maine, but a more general width-to-length ratio could be mandated.

A political science doctoral candidate at MIT devised a formula that rates a district by its similarity to a square, dividing the perimeter by four and dividing that number by the square root of a district’s area, Mr. Keohane reports. The closer that number is to 1, the more perfectly square it is. A ratio of 1.3 or less might be the standard required.

The average ratio using this formula in 1960 was 1.5; today it’s 2.1.

Maine’s two districts might not be made square, but the dividing line could be more east and west, rather than diagonal. And if other states adopted the “it’s hip to be square” measure, the partisan divide might diminish.

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